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Norwalk Council slices, dices capital budget

Norwalk 15-0406 003
Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large), left, and Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) on Monday query Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. — Saddle Road residents scored a victory Monday as Planning Committee members reversed plans made by Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord, putting the long-awaited project to relieve flooding on the Wolfpit street at the top of the list.

The committee voted to rearrange the 2015-16 capital budget to finance the “Honeysuckle Daphne diversion,” to help the Saddle Road crew, as well as to finance the city’s matching grant for the Norwalk River Valley Trail, work on the City Hall community room, design work for the Rowayton community dock, the finishing touch on Fodor Farm, accelerate the work on the Veterans Park ramps, and – and – put additional money into fixing up basketball and tennis courts, or other things needed in the parks.

This was done by taking $100,000 out of the $1 million sidewalk allocation, $52,000 out of IT projects and $300,000 out of the NRVT project, because it was decided that the earlier $600,000 calculation had been incorrect.

The results of all this labor will be voted on by the full Council next week.

Also next week, the Council expects to unring a bell it hit on Feb. 24. Specifically, the Council expects to put conditions on how DPW can spend the $867,155 left over from the recently completed Buckingham-Lockwood drainage improvement project so that it can direct the money to Saddle Road.

Several of the flood-battered residents attended the meeting, following up on emails that have been sent over the last week and entreaties that have repeatedly been made.

“We’ve been fighting the water problem for over 40 years,” Ed Consolati said. He and his wife were in their 20s when they moved to the neighborhood; now they are grandparents and his wife is dragging hoses around at 3 in the morning, he said.

Neighbors schedule their vacations so that they don’t overlap, and someone will be there in case it rains, he said. “Anything over an inch per hour we have to really sweat it out,” Consolati said.

Alvord recently told Council members that he would not be able to address flooding on Saddle Road because it would cost $1.35 million. He had requested $350,000 in the 2015-16 capital budget and $1 million in the 2016-17 capital budget to address the Saddle Road problem, the “Honeysuckle Daphne diversion,” but instead requested that the leftover $867,155 be transferred to the watercourse maintenance account to allow for a number of small projects to be done.

The $350,000 was not recommended for funding by Finance Director Thomas Hamilton

Wolfpit area resident Lou D’Acunto wanted the $350,000 put back into the budget, saying “If we don’t get this ball started it’s never going to get rolling.”

Alvord said the $350,000 was never supposed to come out of the watercourse maintenance account, which is for smaller projects.

“That was never our intent. I don’t think we pitched it that way,” he said.

“You said two or three times now ‘that was not our intent,’” Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said. “I am a member of Council and I don’t know what the intent is. We were under the impression that since in the Finance Committee, when we first addressed the 867,000 surplus into what I would call general flooding accounts, we were under the impression that that money would allow us to pursue certain things that we as Council members were very concerned about, in the Wolfpit area in particular. We know the money is not encumbered, it’s not earmarked, it’s a pile of money sitting there.”

“The Council should have some say after being briefed by the engineers on where the money is spent, and how it is spent,” Kimmel said. “… We know exactly which roads we are going to pave and why, we don’t know how we’re going to use this $1 million for flood relief. OK? You guys have a priority list, you’re engineers, but the fact of the matter is we don’t know. We get bombarded by constituents and we say we are going to do our best.”

Alvord was also criticized by Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland.

“When I have a capital project that has leftover funds at the end, Tom Hamilton pries them out of my hands and puts them back into whatever funding line it goes to,” Westmoreland said. “I don’t get to go to the BET and avoid the capital budget process and have those funds reassigned to something else. I think this is an example of where funds were reassigned that were left over from a project that were then not balanced against other important projects such as the flooding of this neighborhood. Unless you go through that process every time with all of those monies, you are not looking at all the other priorities that these funds need to be judged against. This is flooding of a neighborhood, this needs to be fixed. I don’t know why we do this; some departments get a free pass I guess on reallocating funds, some other procedures that other departments don’t have. I don’t think it’s a very good process, it doesn’t seem to work well.”

Kimmel said Westmoreland was right, because DPW had reallocated capital budget money without going through the process.

Councilman John Kydes (D-District C) said Saddle Road should be a priority and asked Alvord if it was feasible to direct $350,000 of the watercourse maintenance money to the Honeysuckle Daphne diversion.

“I can’t give you an answer right at the moment because we haven’t costed out the other projects,” Alvord said. “Ideally we would have every project developed, designed and estimated before the capital budget process occurs each year. That is just not reality, we just can’t get things done that way, so we end up developing projects as we go along, the smaller projects, and it may be the middle of a fiscal year that we actually know what the cost is going to be. That is the flexibility that the watercourse maintenance account gives us. If we didn’t have that we couldn’t do any of those smaller projects when we are able to get those things designed and figure out what the solution is. So I’d like to be able to stand here and commit to you that 350 of that could go to the Honeysuckle Daphne diversion, but I don’t know that at the moment, until we look at.”

Kimmel looked at the Saddle Road residents in the audience and said, “We have a commitment from the mayor and the full Council, I believe, that the diversion will be addressed out of the $1 million we already have for these kinds of issues.”

“I think there is a way to address this,” Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said. The mayor and Hamilton believe the Council has the prerogative, since the recently transferred funds are not earmarked for anything specific, to put conditions on how the money is spent. That will be investigated over the next week, he said.

“I think we will do it directly on the Council floor if we can,” Hempstead said. “If they are not encumbered, I think we can do it that way.”

The $600,000 that was recommended as a match to a federal grant to finance a section of the Norwalk River Valley Trail from Union Park to New Canaan Avenue was also a topic of much conversation.

Officials appear to have been mistaken when they said that a 20 percent match was needed, Hempstead said. Senior Civil Engineer Mike Yeosock had researched it and found that only a 10 percent match is needed, as 80 percent will come from the federal government, 10 percent will come from the state and 10 percent will come from Norwalk.

Alvord said that was the first he had heard of that.

Last week, NRVT activists bombarded City Hall with emails after Hempstead suggested that the $600,000 be delayed to the next capital budget, because Alvord said the design probably wouldn’t be done until then anyway.

This week, Hempstead asked Alvord for a date range in which the design will be done.

“I hate to keep saying this but we are looking for precision in an environment that lacks precision,” Alvord said. “Honestly, I can think of a thousand things that will pop up and disrupt the schedule.”

But, he said, it’s not a controversial project and barring a hurricane things would probably move along.

Committee members voted unanimously to cut the $600,000 in half. They also voted unanimously to take $100,000 out of the sidewalk account, and $52,000 out of two IT projects that totaled more than $1 million

“I think those small amounts will not affect the overall goal of those two,” Hempstead said.

Kimmel made a motion to increase the funding for the Veterans Park boat ramp from $800,000 to $1 million.

“That will enable them to complete a big chunk of the project around the visitor’s docks and the boat ramps,” Kimmel said. “They are about $200,000 short on something that, issues that I don’t understand because I don’t have a boat … but everyone I talk to say the ramps, the inwater ramps, are a big problem during high and low tide and they are very, very difficult to get your boat sometimes in and out of the water. With the additional $200,000 they will be able to complete a solid chunk of what is a two-phase project, instead of finishing about 80 percent of one phase this year.”

A request for $40,000 for a Fodor Farm caretaker’s apartment that had been denied up until this point was unanimously approved for inclusion in the budget.

“This $40,000 will basically complete something that started back in the mid-’90s,” Kimmel said. “I think it’s appropriate, we might not have had open space fund if not for the Fodor Farm issue.”

Hempstead made the move to put an additional $52,000 into the capital budget for a Recreation and Parks request to do maintenance. That was also approved.

Minority Leader Travis Simms (D-District B) pushed for work on the park at Nathaniel Ely. “That park hasn’t been done in decades and there’s cracks all along that park,” he said.

Council members agreed that was possible.

Lastly, $170,000 was designated to be added to the City Hall building fund, not just for the community room but for the ongoing 5-year painting program and American Disabilities Act issues, such as improving a ramp that dates to 1998.

Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) agreed with Hempstead that the community room could use an update, citing “big clunky microphones” that have to be moved around.

“That room is, I think, utilized more than (the Council chambers) for not only government but for outside organizations, nonprofits,” Hempstead said. “It just tends to be the room where press releases are done … I think it is a room that takes a lot of use.”

The kitchen will not be improved with the money.

“How the kitchen got involved in this I have no clue, but that’s OK. We are not remodeling the kitchen,” Hempstead said.

The capital budget will be voted on at next week’s Council meeting.

After Monday night’s meeting, Kimmel said in an email, “The discussion was challenging and quite productive. A lot of time has been spent the last few days trying to figure out how to address flooding and the river trail. And we’re still not completely done.”

Comments

3 responses to “Norwalk Council slices, dices capital budget”

  1. David Westmoreland

    It was not my intention to criticize Mr. Alvord for seeking the funds he needs to run his department, but rather to call in question the process by which council committees and the BET reallocates significant leftover capital project funds to other projects without scrutinizing them against the full list of city priorities across all departments, as is done each year in the budgeting process.

    Mr. Alvord has a difficult job, given the years of lack of investment in the city’ crumbling infrastructure, along with the limited staffing, resources, and funding they are given. I have seen firsthand how hard his department works to get projects done for the city and am appreciative of their efforts.

  2. Oldtimer

    Saddle road flooding is a very old problem and has been an issue in capital budgets for many years, but never gets fixed. I wonder if Alvord’s practice of spending on some projects and taking money from others, without council approval, is the reason. The council taking more control over how and where capital budget money is spent sounds like a step in the right direction. It will be interesting to see how the council follows up and how Alvord follows it’s orders.

  3. Don’t Panic

    It will also be interesting to see if the BET uses this as a “learning moment” to ensure that budgeting discipline is maintained throughout the process and across all departments.

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